It would be easy to dismiss the new book "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" as little more than a novelty. The title sounds more like a great "Saturday Night Live" sketch than a compelling read, and its author, Seth Grahame-Smith, was responsible for last year's good-natured Jane Austen sendup, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."
But Grahame-Smith's sophomore effort outlasts the kitsch value of its title, and freed from the constraints of updating (or defacing, depending on one's viewpoint) a revered literary gem, the writer delivers a well-constructed, surprisingly satisfying narrative that straight-faces its absurd premise: that Honest Abe, the 16th president of the United States, led a secret life slaying the fanged undead.
The book opens with a brief prologue, in which a mysterious man identified only as Henry, unexpectedly leaves a package and a strange letter with a character named Seth Grahame-Smith. A once aspiring writer who has settled into a cashier's job at a small-town five-and-dime store, Grahame-Smith finds himself in possession of 10 leather-bound volumes penned by Lincoln with instructions from Henry to adapt them into his own original manuscript. The story that follows recasts the events of Lincoln's life, from his boyhood up through his assassination, in a supernatural light. The death of his mother at the hands of a vampire drives Lincoln to eradicate the creatures, and he pursues his goal for decades, first striking out at night with his trusty ax to dispatch the ghouls, then using his skills as a world-class orator and politician to end slavery, which, here, is a horror perpetuated by plantation owners in league with the undead.
The set-up works brilliantly. Rather than having to write solely in Lincoln's voice, Grahame-Smith can work from an omniscient third-person perspective and quote specific lines or paragraphs from the journals to flesh out an anecdote or add resonance to a specific passage. The approach helps the story move along at a swift pace while also adding welcome flourishes of period detail.
After Lincoln witnesses a slave auction, he writes: "I saw a Negro girl of three or four clinging to her mother, confused as to why she was dressed in such clothes; why she had been scrubbed the night before; made to stand on this platform while men shouted numbers and waved pieces of paper in the air. Again I wondered why a Creator who had dreamt such beauty would have slandered it with such evil."
Grahame-Smith's ability to serve up such moments of real poignancy within a B-horror movie context just might make him something of a Joss Whedon for the niche literary set. And at a time when the market is flooded with vampire titles, most of them young adult romances, a writer who can transform the greatest figure from 19th century American history into the star of an original vampire tale with humor, heart and bite is a rare find indeed.
Queen Victoria faced many challenges when she took the English throne in 1837. There she was, 18 years old, suddenly expected to figure out how the country should handle its imperial designs, not to mention hunger, filth, poverty, disease ... and demons.
Satan, writes A.E. Moorat in his wildly entertaining "Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter," may have quit the Earth for cozier infernal digs, but he "decreed that a force be left on earth, here to do his work, which was to spread darkness, death and destruction among us. ..." At the head of this force is a demonic clan called the Baal seeking control of everything in England, including the monarchy and Parliament.
This means that all the mischief in the country - demons disguised as proper lords, ghouls chasing innocent Londoners across town and snacking on their intestines - is hardly chaotic violence: It's part of a plan. And the young queen must educate herself on this diabolical scheme to save her people. Enter Maggie Brown, the queen's "protektor," dressed in "a rough jerkin over which was strapped a leather brigandine" and toting a broadsword. Soon she is teaching Victoria how to handle a sword of her own.
Moorat's story rises above mere gimmick thanks to hearty amounts of English history, all given supernatural twists. We learn a lot, for instance, about the royal romance between Victoria and her love, the German prince Albert, but also that the romance has been orchestrated to place a demon in line for the throne. Albert's "destiny is to provide a male heir ... one who carries the bloodline of Baal."
The prince, then, turns out to be a dark minion - a very conflicted one. He's torn between his mission and his great love for the queen; when he decides to tell her the truth, a monstrous wolf (one who is, uh, adept at acupressure) knocks him out and whisks him away. Victoria turns to Maggie for combat training: "I'm going after Albert, Maggie," she says. "I'm going to need weapons. Very, very sharp weapons."
Cue up action music and training montage.
There are more monsters rampaging through this book than in the "Dawn of the Dead" movies. What's that about? Perhaps it simply has to do with mixing high and low, playing a
"what if" game with no factual ground rules of any kind.
Moorat, the pseudonym of British novelist Andrew Holmes, has just the right touch for such silly stuff. And if this book whets your appetite for more occult revisionist English history, you'll be pleased to know that the author, his publisher reports, is working on another novel: "Henry VIII: Wolfman."